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Using sex as a weapon

A Column for Women

September 1998

Women learn early on that sex is a weapon and a tool.

We know that people want us, and that we can get things -- dates, popularity, financial rewards, orgasm, to name but a few -- when we wield it. We also learn that the women who employ this tool are punished, covertly (through reputation) or overtly (through legislation) for using it.

As females, we are told from birth that recreational sex is wrong. When we get older, we are told it is for procreation. When we seroconvert we are told that we are vectors of virus and should abstain. All throughout, we are sold ideas as to how, when, and with whom we should be engaging in sex.

Women throughout the ages have been punished for exhibiting their sexuality, while at the same time, iconized as sex-symbols. We have been treated, and taught to see ourselves, as victims of male prowess. We are taught to look at our sexual behavior as submission to, rather than desire for, sex. It becomes increasingly difficult to disentangle ourselves from this web of power-imbalance between men and women and self-perception and public perception of women as sexual beings. It is much easier to see ourselves as victims rather than participants.

When a woman has HIV disease, the power imbalance is perceived to have changed. She becomes a sexual predator, and must be stopped, through legislation, or worse. The idea that a woman may be a healthy, sexually active person living with HIV disease is an anachronism. It is unfathomable. By the mere fact of her having this sexually transmitted disease, she is seen as "dirty" and/or "dangerous".

Consensual, but illegal

Pamela Wiser, an HIV-positive woman in Tennessee, is facing up to 12 years in prison for two counts of criminal exposure to HIV, a Class C felony.

Wiser alleges that she disclosed her HIV status to her partners and that the sex acts were consensual. Tennessee law states that "a person commits the offense of criminal exposure of another to HIV when, knowing that such person is infected with HIV, such person knowingly engage in intimate contact with another," which is described as "the exposure of the body of one person to a bodily fluid of another person in any manner that presents a significant risk of HIV transmission."

Adults have sex for a myriad of reasons. Sometimes it is out of anger. Sometimes it is to win someone's love or attention. Sometimes it's just to get off, and, of course, sometimes it is to procreate. There is no right or wrong reason to have sex if both parties are willingly engaging in the act.

Sexuality is biological. Sometimes we "think with our dicks" (or, in a woman's case, our clits). Many of us know those morning-after feelings of regret or elation. It is ridiculous, not to mention impossible, to legislate a person's motivation for having sex, regardless of a person's HIV-status, and that seems to be the crux of this particular case, even more so than the HIV status of either party. The press has been all over how she was "seeking revenge" and was out to "punish the world."

Is it a crime?

The real question, of course, is: Is it criminal for a person with HIV to engage in sex? The answer from a moral, human (and my) point of view is obviously "no."

Accepting the fact of legislation that has passed, however, for the duration of this article, I am forced to consider the law as the law. I wonder where the criminal activity actually springs from. Is it more criminal to have consensual sex after disclosing your HIV-positive status than it is to agree to having sex with someone you know is HIV-positive, or to have sex with someone whose HIV status you don't know? Consensuality implies complicity, and the burden of responsibility falls on each individual to act with integrity and with the maximum amount of knowledge available to them. I don't know that it is possible to legislate personal responsibility or integrity.

As far as personal responsibility is concerned, it would seem ridiculous to hold someone you just picked up, or an anonymous sexual contact responsible for your health. If you wouldn't give your house keys, ATM card or even phone number to this person, why should you hold them responsible for protecting your health? To rely on someone's disclosure is flagrantly irresponsible.

I am not saying that taking calculated risks, or making an informed decision to have sex, protected or not, with an HIV-positive person, or a stranger, is stupid, but to hold them wholly responsible for the outcome -- that is. However, now there are laws that enforce that sort of irresponsibility. This is a country that coddles its victims, and we revel in being victims. I do believe that there is no way to place blame on any one individual in a mutual situation. Punitive action only enforces people's prejudice, fear, and distaste surrounding HIV.

In the case of Pamela Wiser, the public and the press are ready, willing and able to envision a revenge-crazed woman out to take the world of men down with her. Is 12 years in prison enough for her to pay for the crime of being sexually active? And what price does the man who infected her have to pay? Where are the criminal charges against him? She didn't get HIV from nowhere. If someone is responsible for transmission of HIV, and it isn't the "innocent victims" -- the one-night-stands she picked up and brought to a cheap hotel room who agreed to unprotected intercourse -- and it isn't her (now) ex-boyfriend, why in the world has the blame all been brought to her hand? What is she actually being punished for?

Making room for ideas

There is little room in the public arena for women to express their sexuality. If the women are HIV-infected, there is less still.

Because of this lack of public discourse, I decided to start a magazine, Dentata, focusing on HIV-positive women and the people involved with them. We hope to take a step back from the current ways of addressing HIV and women's sexuality.

Right now we are trying to ascertain what our potential readership would be interested in seeing, so I am completely open and (pretty much) without an agenda as to where the magazine is going. The onus of the magazine is simple: to give voice to women living with HIV disease who are still (or who still want to) engage in sex. I hope to present a forum for that voice. And to give voice to men and women who are engaging in sex with HIV-positive women, whether that partner is HIV-positive or not. I hope that we get fun stories, interesting experiences and lively discussion.

I don't want this magazine to be political, inasmuch as sex can be apolitical. I don't want it to be based in the current theories and trends of prevention. For once, instead of telling people how to have sex, we want to hear from the people who are having it.

We all know that HIV disease isn't a laughing matter, but we can find humor (albeit gallows humor) in any situation. We came up with the name Dentata from the concept of "vagina dentata": the vagina with teeth. The dangerous and powerful sexuality that women possess that seems to intimidate or scare people, including women, from expressing their sexuality in a healthy way; HIV-positive or not.

With that, I hope that you find interest in submitting something, or at least passing this information on to anyone you think might enjoy contributing.

This article has been reprinted at The Body with the permission of AIDS Project Los Angeles (APLA).

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This article was provided by AIDS Project Los Angeles. It is a part of the publication Positive Living.
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